Nike’s Infamous Air Huarache Makes a Comeback

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While most artifacts of 1990s technology – laser discs, calculator watches, holographic pogs – have been relegated to ironic punchline status, this fall’s most striking sneaker trend is a revival of that decade’s bygone footwear innovations. The top names in sportswear are taking it back to the early days of the first Bush administration, when a trip to Foot Locker meant choosing between a myriad of hi-tech sneakers that all guaranteed an air-tight fit. Footwear giants were engaged in a high stakes arms race, applying space-age materials and sophisticated engineering principles to construct the snuggest sneakers imaginable. It’s a wonder that blood circulated anywhere below our ankles. 

Sneaker brands eventually moved on from their foot-swaddling obsession, but a flurry of re-releases have given the era’s most memorable silhouettes a second wind. The Reebok Pump, which features a ball-shaped inflator connected to an internal bladder, returned to retail with 25th anniversary editions of its Blacktop, Insta Pump, and Shaq Attaq models. The Puma Disc, which launched in 1992 with a rotating dial in lieu of laces, has found a wider audience with a new line creative directed by Solange Knowles. But Nike’s Air Huarache, the 90s' quirkiest foot-hugger, has made the biggest splash, transcending the nostalgia factor to become a dark horse contender for 2014’s must-have sneaker.

Designed by Tinker Hatfield, the eccentric mastermind behind Nike’s flagship Air Max line, the Huarache’s sock-like fit was inspired by water-skiing booties and Native American sandals. Released in 1991, the unorthodox runner featured blinding neon colors, the absence of Nike’s typical swoosh logo, and an exposed neoprene lining that gave it the appearance of a sock that had started to evolve into a shoe, but lost interest halfway. It was a brave experiment in radical shoe design, and it went down in flames. 

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The controversial model secured only 5 percent of Nike’s average orders from distributors, and the shoe was scrapped. A zealous marketer saved the Huarache by producing 5,000 pairs and selling them out of a booth at the New York Marathon. It was a ballsy move and a brilliant word-of-mouth marketing campaign. The Huarache was released a year later, with a print slogan that asked, “Have you hugged your foot today?”, and became an instant 90’s icon. It starred in a commercial directed by David Fincher and soundtracked by John Lennon. It cameo’d on several episodes of Seinfeld as Jerry’s sneaker of choice. It eventually reached its peak in a high-top version that graced the feet of Michigan’s Fab Five at the 1992 NCAA Basketball Tournament. 

The Huarache’s resurgence in 2014 seems perfectly timed. The sneaker’s low profile is naturally suited for skinny jeans, and its snug, comfortable fit is a no brainer in a season dominated by yoga pants and cuffed joggers. The practical design is refreshing next to contemporary athletic shoes that are suffocated by carbon fiber and metallic foil materials. Although it still turns heads, Its unconventional style is hardly as controversial to a younger generation raised on utilitarian footwear like Toms, Crocs, and boat shoes.

While past re-releases of the Huarache didn’t generate excitement beyond hardcore sneaker heads, this year's launch has been a resounding success, with popular colorways selling out in minutes online. Although the Air Huarache was ahead of its time in 1991, it feels surprisingly at home in 2014.

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